Throughout the night, because of the glow from the neon lights of Reno, 30 miles to the south, there has been no true darkness in the sky over Pyramid Lake. Not until 6:30 a.m. does the first finger of sunlight come over the Nightingale Mountains to the east. Then, in the dim light of dawn on this strange and legendary lake on the Paiute Indian reservation, the first-time visitor is witness to a seemingly inexplicable sight.
This is an article from the Nov. 6, 1989 issue
On the western shore fly-fishermen are working in a style that shows them to be expert in the ways of Stillwater trout fishing. They are throwing the long, heavy lines that anglers call shooting heads. They barely pause between stripping in one cast and sending the next one flying out over the flat surface. While this in itself is not remarkable, the visitor blinks in disbelief because it appears that all these anglers are standing on the water. The sight is made stranger still by the chest-high waders all of them are wearing.
Not until the sun rises above the distant mountains and the efforts of one of the fishermen are finally rewarded is the mystery solved. As the fish thrashes, the angler steps down into the water. It suddenly becomes clear that he has been standing atop a stepladder.
The fisherman uses one hand to steady himself as he descends, the other to hold his rod high so that the formidable fish he has hooked can run free. Now he is chest-deep in ice-cold water as he fights the trout, backing up—when the fish allows—into shallower water. At last the battle nears its end in the shallows, and the newcomer sees the fisherman slide the big trout onto the sandy beach. He asks the angler not to release the fish quite yet so that he might approach and see it more closely.
"Cock fish, ready to spawn," says the fisherman, who will later make himself known as Bernie Crooks. It's more than 11 pounds, maybe 12, reddish brown in color, heavily speckled with gray spots and slashed with glorious, heraldic scarlet on its cheeks and throat. Crooks carefully removes the fly, a black leechlike creation known as a Woolly Bugger, and glides the fish through the bright shoreline water and back toward the dark depths. The trout's gills pulse steadily, and then, with a flashing swipe of its tail, it is gone.
The visitor watches the fish disappear into the slightly saline waters of Pyramid Lake. This is the first specimen he has ever seen of Salmo clarki henshawi, the great Lahontan cutthroat trout, a fish that was generally thought to have been extinct for two or three decades.
Meantime, Crooks is in no hurry to start fishing again. He is a thick, balding man of 46, and he has discovered that Pyramid Lake is perfect therapy for the stress of his day-to-day life at Reno Airport as a customer-service agent, which entails ticketing, handling baggage and telling standbys that the plane is completely filled. Even after 30 years of fishing this high-desert lake, he is fascinated by its ways.
"I've been out here camping and it was so calm that the smoke from my fire went straight up into the air," he says. "Then here would come two-and three-foot swells. They must have just spawned on the other side. I don't know what from. This lake is special to the Paiute Indians, and they have many stories to tell about it. They say you can hear crying at night—babies crying. They call them water babies, and they say they were Indian children that drowned in the lake. You hear all kinds of stories. But I'll tell you for sure, Pyramid Lake does not give up its dead. A Navy plane went in last year, and they never found the crew, only a piece of wing and a part of the motor."
Crooks is not the first man to be captivated by Pyramid Lake. In 1844 the advance party of the explorer John C. Fremont "discovered" the lake. Actually, the group was lost; Fremont thought he was on the return route to San Francisco after having explored the Columbia River. Here's part of what Fremont wrote in his journal on Jan. 10, 1844: "Leaving a signal for the party to encamp, we continued our way up the hollow...the snow deepening to about a foot as we reached the summit. Beyond, a defile between the mountains descended rapidly about 2,000 feet; and, filling up all the lower space, was a sheet of green water some twenty miles broad. It broke upon our eyes like the ocean.... The waves were curling in the breeze, and their dark green color showed it to be a body of deep water. For a long time we sat enjoying the view for we had become fatigued with the mountains...."
The next day Fremont and his group made their way down to the lake. On Jan. 13 they headed south along the lakeshore, right into the teeth of a blizzard that blew up a five-foot surf and created deep snowdrifts on the beaches. But the following day the lake radically changed its mood. The snow melted, and Fremont could make out something that he had been vaguely aware of during the storm. It was a rock out in the water that, according to his journal. "presented a pretty exact outline of the great pyramid of Cheops.... [So] I called it Pyramid Lake, though it may be deemed by some to be a fanciful resemblance."
Eventually, Fremont came upon a shoreside Indian village, where he was offered a fish for trade. It made almost as much of an impression on him as had the lake from which it was taken. Wrote Fremont: "We had the inexpressible satisfaction to find [that it! was a salmon trout; we gathered round him eagerly. The Indians were amused by our delight and brought in numbers so that the camp was soon stocked. Their flavor was excellent—superior, in fact to that of any fish I have ever known. They were of extraordinary size—about as large as the Columbia River salmon—generally from two to four feet long."
Though he didn't know it at the time. Fremont had met, more or less simultaneously, the Northern Paiute tribe and the Lahontan cutthroat trout. Moreover, the lake he had just named would turn out to be one of the most geologically significant bodies of water in North America. It is the last remnant of the 70,000-year-old Great Lahontan Lake. In the centuries that followed its creation, the lake grew and retreated at least four times. When it was large, it was huge—covering more than 9,000 square miles of what is now northwestern Nevada and northeastern California. It dwindled to its present size, a mere 30-mile-long puddle, about 8,000 years ago.
But while Lahontan Lake was shrinking, the opposite was occurring to some of its inhabitants. The Lahontan cutthroat evolved into the biggest member of the trout family. Heaven knows how big the fish got in prehistoric times, but the modern high-water mark is a 41-pounder taken by a Paiute named John Skimmerhorn in 1925. Scientists believe the Lahontan cutthroat—one of 14 subspecies of the cutthroat species—grew so large because its main source of food was a 15-inch-long fish called the tui chub. To survive in the Lahontan, the trout had to evolve genetically so that they could feed on something that big.
The size of the Lahontan cutthroat almost proved to be its undoing. The commercial fishery that developed for the breed drastically reduced its population. In the winter and spring of 1888-89, 100 tons of cutthroat trout were shipped from Pyramid Lake by Wells. Fargo, not just to epicures in fine restaurants but to railroad crews, road gangs and mining camps.
In the first decades of the 1900s, sport fishermen also depleted the lake's stock of trout. In those days Reno was the divorce capital of the nation. As few as six weeks were needed to establish residency, a prerequisite for obtaining a divorce, and the laws favored the plaintiff. One way to kill the six or so weeks was to dangle some bait in Pyramid and catch a 20-pound cutthroat. The Hollywood crowd also frequented the lake. In one photo, Clark Gable, not a hair out of place, can be seen hefting two massive cutthroats.
However, while fishermen of all kinds were depleting the numbers of Lahontan trout and thereby weakening its reproductive pool, men with slide rules, not fishing rods, would do the most damage to the fish. What eventually caused the Lahontan trout to disappear from Pyramid Lake was the building of the Derby Dam on the Truckee River, the lake's only source of water and the only place where they spawned. The dam was completed in 1905 to divert much of the Truckee's water into the Carson Basin for agricultural uses and electric power. A "fish pass" was built into the dam, but as early as 1912, it was condemned by three Nevada fish commissioners as "inadequate."
"Tons of fish have died at Derby Dam," wrote the commissioners. "Millions of eggs have been lost." Eventually the fish pass fell apart.
With the dam in place, the water level of the lake dropped, exposing sandbars at the mouth of the Truckee. Consequently, fewer and fewer fish could get to the river. The cutthroat kept trying to make their spawning runs, but couldn't make it over the dam. Trapped, they became easy prey for the farmers, who would catch them with pitchforks, throw them into carts and use them as fertilizer. The fish's last spawning run came in 1938, when, according to Dr. Robert Behnke of Colorado State University, the few remaining trout averaged 20 pounds. Soon after that—the lifespan of the species is about seven years—the Lahontan trout in Pyramid Lake were extinct.
The Derby Dam also came close to destroying another fish, the cui-ui, a suckerlike species named by the Paiute. In his office in Nixon, Nev., near Pyramid Lake, tribal chairman Joe Ely explained to the visitor the significance to his people of the fish and the lake where it lives. "You call this Pyramid Lake, right?" said Ely. "Because John Fremont called it that back in 1844, because when he came over the mountain it seemed the most important rock formation on the lake to him."
Ely pointed to a picture on the wall and continued, "Have you seen that formation? The one we call the Stone Mother?" The great piece of tufa looks almost like a statue of an old woman with a woven basket.
"The story the Paiute have of her is that she and her husband and two children moved in this direction from the north and stopped in the desert," said Ely. "There was no lake here then. But the two boys fought constantly, and their father sent them away, never to return. The mother learned what had happened when she returned from gathering food that day. Her tears became Cui-ui-pah, which is our name for the lake. And a fish, the cui-ui, which you would call a sucker, sprang up—and the people, the Cui-ui tuccatta [eaters of the cui-ui]. These are the three elements—the lake, the fish and the people—that make up the tribe."
The cui-ui are found only in Pyramid Lake. Like the Lahontan cutthroat, they, too, spawned in the Truckee River. "So when you talk about our struggle for the fish," said Ely, "it is not merely a fish but an intricate part of who we are, of our identity."
Although the cutthroats were important to the Paiute economy, that fish was never considered an integral part of their culture. For the Indians, the biggest annual festival of all was the harvesting of the cui-ui fish. "It would run for two or three weeks in midspring—the rest of the year the cui-ui would live in inaccessible depths," said Ely. "But at festival time the water would turn black with cui-ui [like the Lahontan cutthroats, the cui-ui grew to remarkable size, as much as 10 pounds] in the shallows. After the cui-ui were caught, they were dried and stored for the coming year. They were our staple food.
"I'm looking for an analogy." said Ely, and after a pause, he found one. "This controversy going on over the desecration of the American flag, all the fervor and conviction it's arousing. People ask us, So what is this fish that nobody likes, that nobody else wants? Essentially, it is a flag—a symbol. In the first 40 years after the dam was built, the lake had dropped 70 feet. The Lahontan cutthroat disappeared, and the cui-ui numbers shrank to a point where harvest became impossible. Pyramid's sister lake, Winnemucca, dried completely."
What should have been the coup de grace came in 1944, when the federal government tried to settle how the water of the Truckee—and by extension, Pyramid Lake—would be allocated. The principal claimants were the city of Reno, farmers to the east of the lake and the Paiute. The Paiute were represented by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"The bureau made a critical error on our account and a near fatal one for the fish," said Ely. "It was an error that would set the tone for many years of hardship and litigation for our tribe. We tried to explain our status as 'fishermen,' but the BIA insisted on representing us as 'farmers.' The result was called the Orr Ditch Decree. It might have been called the Last Ditch. From receiving 450,000 acre-feet of water annually—it takes at least 400,000 a year just to replace Pyramid Lake's evaporation losses—we were cut down to 31,000 acre-feet for agriculture irrigation and zero for fisheries."
So how come in the spring of 1989, Crooks—from his perch atop his step-ladder—not only has caught a dozen or so Lahontan but also is climbing back up those ladder rungs with every hope of landing another one? Hadn't Ely said the trout were gone from Pyramid Lake by the early '40s? The lake, the experts thought, was by then so shrunken and saline that it could no longer support any species of trout or salmon, and certainly not the cutthroat. Or could it?
In 1948, Thomas Trelease, a former chief of fisheries of the Nevada Fish and Game Commission, had an idea that, one would think, would have been tried earlier. In an attempt to see whether any trout could live in such salty water, he dunked rainbows enclosed in cages into the lake. Those fish, which were not released, survived. Thus the way was open for efforts to restock Pyramid. However, not until after 1956—when Congress passed the Washoe Act, which returned to the lake some of the water that had been diverted to the farmers, and provided facilities for restoring the fish—did any serious restocking effort begin.
In the '60s and '70s the state planted in Pyramid thousands of Salmo clarki henshawi from Heenan Lake in California and Walker and Summit lakes in Nevada, lakes all thought possibly to have been part of Lake Lahontan Basin. Those fish prospered, and anglers began to enjoy fine fishing again. Ten-pounders were not unusual, and every now and then a 20-pounder was landed. It seemed that Pyramid Lake was on its way back to being one of the finest cutthroat trout fisheries in the world.
Except that the cutthroats from Heenan and Walker lakes were probably not true Lahontan cutts after all; they showed evidence of hybridization with rainbows. Further, many of the cutthroats from Summit Lake did not appear to have the gene pattern that had permitted the Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroats to reach such enormous sizes. A 40-pound cutthroat from Pyramid Lake had become an impossibility now. thought many biologists.
Down at the lakeside, late in the day. Crooks asks the visitor. "Do you want to see the hatchery?" The visitor does, but first there is a question that has been bothering him since daybreak. "The—uh—ladder?" asks the visitor.
"Well, it used to be milk crates." says Crooks. "If you wade out to a level of, say, hip-deep, you're always fishing and having to hold your arms up out of the water. You get super tired. So you stand on one of these things."
"What about those sudden waves?" says the visitor.
"Oh, sure," said Crooks. "Everybody takes a fall now and then. And before you ask, Yes, the lake is cold. This was the coldest year I fell in."
The cutthroat hatchery Crooks takes the visitor to is near the community of Sutcliffe, on the western side of the lake. The fish are strong and handsome, scarlet males, silver females. "The fish are getting bigger," says Lee Carlson, the biologist on duty as he looks at the records to verify what he has just said. "In 1980 we were averaging 3.4-pounders. In '86 it was 4.6, and so far this year we're at five pounds."
So, might we someday see more 40-pounders? Carlson is cagey about these breeding fish. He, too, raises the issue of the lost gene pattern for large size. But he hasn't given up hope: The actual Pyramid Lake strain may not have been lost after all.
In 1977, Terry Hickman, a graduate student in wildlife biology at Colorado State, found a colony of tiny true Lahontan trout in Donner Creek, a small creek on the Utah-Nevada line. According to decades-old records kept by the California and Nevada fisheries departments, Donner Creek was most recently stocked in 1930—and at that time from only one source. Pyramid Lake. So far attempts to reestablish these true Lahontan cutthroats in their home waters have been inconclusive, but the effort continues. Should pending legislation pass, Pyramid Lake will get back more of the water it needs, and that will be a benefit not only to the cutthroats but to the cui-ui as well.
Now, late in the afternoon, the hatchery explored and the fishing over for the day, Crooks points to the sky. Blue all day, it has now turned hazy. "Contrails," he says. "The haze is caused by aircraft contrails that have gotten spread out till they cover the sky. This is a major air route from the East Coast to the West."
The artificial haze seems symbolic of the pressures on Pyramid Lake. "Ever think there'll be a 40-pounder caught here again?" says the vistor.
"Hey, give them time," replies Crooks. "They took 10,000 years to get to that weight before."
The visitor wonders if Pyramid Lake has another 10,000 years at its disposal.